By Mike Dunphy
With plastic bans on the lips of lawmakers around the state and images of bags floating with jellyfish across our social media streams, Vermonters are becoming ever more conscious of the impact of plastic on the environment and finding ecologically friendly alternative packaging. An industry has risen to meet the demand, with increasingly higher quality and more accessible products as the technology improves, but integrating them into Vermont’s waste and compost infrastructure appears to be a far more challenging hill to climb.
A case in point is the new compostable “BioBag” available in the bulk food department of Hunger Mountain Co-op and City Market in Burlington. Made from “Mater-Bi,”—a type of bioplastic that uses starches, cellulose, and vegetable oils—the bags are fully compostable, and according to Hunger Mountain store manager, Kari Bradley, “break down fully into carbon dioxide and water, essentially.” In addition, the bags are certified by the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI)”—an essential designation for many composters and waste management districts.
However, try to bring the bags to a local composter, such as Vermont Compost Company (VCC) or Grow Compost, and they won’t be accepted, because the source material is not strictly organic. “They are not allowed by the National Organic Program,” explains Kurt Ericksen at VCC, “and our products are approved for organic use.” This means users of the bag must either compost it in the backyard, or bring it to one of two waste districts in Vermont that accept them—Chittenden Solid Waste District (CSWD) and Windham Solid Waste Management District.
Furthermore, organic composters are generally skeptical of “bioplastic” in almost any form, thanks to issues with producers “green-washing” products to make them seem more environmentally friendly than they are. “Vermont has witnessed a lack of reliability regarding claims of biodegradable and compostable products,” Ericksen notes. “That’s a problem when your end goal is to rejuvenate the soils from which we grow our food.”
It’s a perspective shared by Michele Morris, director of outreach and communications at CSWD, who disputes the “bioplastic” term itself. “We prefer to use a very narrow term, which is ‘certified compostable products,’” she explains, pointing to Coke’s Dasani “plant bottles” as an example of the confusion that comes with the term “bioplastic.” “They are sourced from biological material but manipulated in a way that it acts like a regular plastic soda or beverage bottle,” she points out, “so it no longer has the same properties as a corn-based plastic. Not every compostable item is created equally.”
Josh Kelly, materials management section chief at the Waste Management and Prevention Division of Vermont’s Department of Environmental Conservation, adds, “The USDA basically says if something has been synthesized, it is not certified organic and thus cannot be used in organic agriculture, so you can take dairy manure from a non-organic farm and use that manure on your farm and continue to be certified organic…but the minute you take a BPI-certified, compostable bag and put it into a compost pile and use that on your organic farm, you’ve just violated your NOFA [Northeast Organic Farming Association] organic standards.”
“Fundamentally, it has more to do with what’s being introduced to our soils,” Ericksen elaborates, and that comes back to the transparency of the producer. An organic certifying agent has to know all of the details of the entire production line and how that’s going to impact soils on organic farms. If they don’t have enough information or the impact is deemed negative or not in line with the National Organic Program [the federal regulatory framework governing organic food], the materials won’t be approved.
As for manures, Ericksen counters, “The science behind utilizing well-managed, composted manures from conventional farms for the benefit of organic farms is very strong, but the science behind using ‘biodegradable’ plastics in compost to apply to organic soils is mostly inadequate when trying to justify their approval.”
A second problem with using compostable packaging is that many of them will not break down in backyard compost piles because temperatures will not reach the required 141–160 degrees Fahrenheit, leaving what looks like broken up plastic bits in your compost pile. “The compostable, disposable dishware, silverware, and flatware,” explains Cassandra Hemenway at Central Vermont Solid Waste Management District, “is all designed for industrial-
sized composting, not for backyard compost, as it doesn’t get hot enough.”
Another major reason for the wide-scale rejection of plant-based plastic in our compost and waste streams is not the technology, but the psychology, which creates a “gateway” effect. “The general public doesn’t see a distinction between a compostable cup and a conventional coffee cup,” said Morris at Chittenden Solid Waste District. “Folks who don’t accept these products are very rightly concerned that when somebody sees a compostable coffee cup in a compost bin, they automatically assume that all coffee cups can go in that bin. That’s a legitimate concern and something we battle.”
Ericksen agrees. “It creates a challenge because we pick plastic throughout our process. If a machine operator is turning a pile and sees what looks like plastic, they will step down from their machine and remove the plastic. When the biobags have been blended with food, it is difficult to discern them from any other plastic, so we’re stopping the operation and stepping down to inspect and remove the bag.”
Compounding the problem is the conditioning Vermonters (and many Americans) have received toward “Zero-Sort” methods in recycling, where everything is tossed in a single bin, and then picked apart at materials recovery facilities. Recycling workers and advocates have long argued against this policy as significantly degrading the value of the product and that carries over to composting.
“Throwing everything in one bin, what we call Zero Sort Recycling,” notes Hemenway, “completely devalues the product. Once you mix everything together, people throw in things that aren’t recyclable, so our brilliant plan to put all our recyclables into one bin and then let a machine deal with it has backfired.” It also means it will be harder to retrain the public to separate out compostable packaging.
The effort to increase bioplastic alternatives for Vermonters then falls on educating the public and changing behavior. “We walk that line of making recycling and waste reduction and all of our efforts easy for folks to do, or else they’re not going to bother.” Morris explains. “You have to make it easy for people, make it accessible, and you have to make it consistent. It’s the same thing with food scraps and composting. The more you start accepting, the more complicated it gets, and the more people get confused and don’t want to bother.”
The first battle to fight, according to Morris, is better labeling so the distinction between bioplastic and regular plastic is clearer.” The second, she explains, is providing access to more places that process bioplastic material. “If you are a restaurant in Central Vermont… and you’ve invested in these compostable products, but your population doesn’t have access to anywhere to compost it, then should you be actually bothering to buy that product?” It’s a sentiment shared by Hemenway, “That’s why the biodegradable plastics aren’t simple because they require an infrastructure in place to take them.”
Much would need to happen on the policy side, including at the USDA and NOFA-VT, to welcome these materials into compost streams. Creating new facilities at waste management facilities would require vast sums of money, most likely obtained from taxpayers. “It’s not something we can manage on our existing budget,” Hemenway notes. “It’s the kind of thing that if a private sector person said, ‘You know what? I think I see a market for this,’ we are in sore need of that type of thing right now.”
Diving deeper down the rabbit hole brings the question of whether, in the grand scheme of things, insisting on more compostable packaging and bioplastic actually solves the larger problem of waste. For example, is it better to use a bioplastic item that’s been manufactured in China and transported on a ship to the United States? Also, plastics preserve food that would otherwise be wasted and create huge amounts of greenhouse gases and emissions. “You buy bread, and it comes in a plastic bag,” Kelly explains. “If you bought it in the bioplastic bag, it might start to degrade and fall apart before you finish the bread,” especially because BioBags breathe 40 percent more than regular plastic bags.
The greater achievement for nearly all those involved in the debate is reducing the amount of disposable products altogether. In other words, it’s not about making environmentally friendly packaging more accessible and of higher quality, but guiding people to reusable and durable containers.
“It’s not as simple as these bags are better than those bags,” Kelly emphasizes, “it’s about not producing waste in the first place.”